04/17/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated Jun 16, 2014

Forging California's Destiny

Southern California, one of the world's largest and most diverse urban areas, is rapidly becoming a region of profound economic inequality. The changing demography across this vast urban sprawl has led to sharp divisions in the population's educational, social and racial profile. A close look at immigration and fertility trends across this megalopolis provides the portrait of a looming demographic transformation.

A new UCLA study by Kfir Mordechay, "Vast Changes and an Uneasy Future: Racial and Regional Inequality in Southern California," reveals the extent of this demographic transition and how it is impacting the Southern California mega-region. Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the report shows that Latinos have become the largest group here, making up 43 percent of the region's residents. Meanwhile, the decline in the region's white population over the last two generations has been stunning. From 75.6 percent of the population in 1970, the white share plummeted to 52 percent in 1990, then to 35.1 percent in 2010. The latest numbers on the region's children, ages five and under, provides a portrait of where the region is headed, as the great majority of the babies born in the region are members of minority groups. In Los Angeles County, white toddlers now constitute less than one-sixth of the population of children under five. What's more, since the census was completed in 2010, their growth rate has continued to fall, suggesting a growing generational gap in racial composition between an older white population and a young minority population. This regional demographic transformation will reshape schools, workplaces and the electorate in the coming decades. An earlier report in this research series by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, showed that three-fourths of the region's public school children, including suburban spaces, are nonwhite and highly segregated in high poverty schools.

Even with the rapidly increasing non-white youth population, the number of young people in the region appears to have peaked in 2003 and has since been in decline. This decline wasn't apparent during the Great Recession but has important implications for the future. While the number of Latinos is decreasing since 2007, they still represent 55.6 percent of children under 14-years-old. This suggests that within several decades, the population will be proportionally older, resulting in an eventual decline in the general population. The birthrate in Los Angeles County, for example, has declined over 12 percent since 2007, with an astonishing decline of 23 percent in birth rates among Hispanic women. Though falling at an incredible rate, Hispanics births in the region are still slightly above replacement levels. In the long-term, a rapid decline in births can potentially lead to an inverted demographic structure with fewer people in their prime working age and an overall greying of the population. Demographics are an incredibly powerful economic force, as highlighted by the Japanese and Chinese experience where a sagging birth rate and an aging population has had long-term drag on economic growth. The expected retirement of the region's large baby boomer population will create urgent labor needs among private and public employers, opening many opportunities for new workers. However, with fewer young people, many of whom are entry-level workers, this is likely to be a challenge. In past decades, the solution has been to attract new workers from outside California via migration from other U.S. states and from outside the country. However, the combination of improved economic prospects in Mexico, feeble U.S. job and housing markets, a rise in deportations, heightened border controls, far less net migration from other states, and the growing costs and dangers associated with illegal border crossings, depending on immigrant labor may no longer be viable source of relief.

Immigration has always been considered as one of the ways to prevent population declines. Yet, immigration into the region has dropped sharply. Los Angeles County, by far the largest immigrant magnet in the region, has seen a decline of both legal and illegal immigration, suggesting that we can no longer rely on outsourcing our fertility. Though the 40-year Latino boom appears to be over, this group is at the forefront of the region's ongoing transformation. However, data on high school graduation shows that a large majority of this group is being failed by the region's educational system and up to one-third of the region's Latino children are growing up in persistent poverty. The region's burgeoning non-white population has extremely low levels of educational attainment and is at risk of being unprepared to meet the demands of an increasingly globalized economy. The social mobility of the future majority and the region are very much at risk.

The changing demographic profile of the region and state will have an impact on a wide range of social and economic issues. These changes raise urgent questions, such as, who will drive economic growth and innovation over the next several decades? The region's children are overwhelmingly non-white and many will have grown up in poverty. Many of these children, particularly the Latino majority, are being failed by the region's schools. We must recognize that the fate of Southern California's Latino children is tied to the future of the Golden State. Therefore, if we want to avoid stagnation and decline, this should be a wake-up call for policymakers that we must invest in the economic productivity of our region's youth.


About the author of the study: Kfir Mordechay is a doctoral student in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and a researcher for the UCLA Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.